What’s happening on the farm this week? A whole lot of everything, that’s what.
This week in Farm and Orchard Time, the bees arrive, more fertilizer is delivered, honeycrisp apples are planted, and spraying begins. I started writing this story days ago, but the farm is just a hub of activity right now. New things happen every day, and so I keep writing and adding, following along with my brothers, Dean Johnson and Ward Johnson, who run Johnson Farms north of Mapleton.
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Farming has all the elements of any business – staff/human resources, sales, marketing, financing, logistics, quality control, manufacturing, warehousing and more. But unlike most businesses, all of those “departments” on a farm fall mainly to a handful of people who keep things tooling along.
Also, along with running the farm, Dean serves on boards and organizations to further awareness of the issues that Michigan farmers deal with on a daily basis. Early last year, for example, he and other growers and Farm Bureau members traveled to Washington, D.C., to advocate for agricultural labor reform and participate in an ag labor conference put on by the National Council of Agricultural Employers.
Here is a photo from that conference, which happened early in 2020, shortly before the pandemic and lockdown happened.
Migrant labor is a huge part of running a farm the size of Johnson Farms, but the process to secure that labor grows more complex every year. I will write more about that coming up.
If there’s one thing that I hope readers get out of these farm stories, it’s that farming is much more than tilling the earth and planting things. Read on for this week’s farm report.
Longer Storage for Honeycrisp Apples
A few of the major Honeycrisp growers in northern Michigan gathered for a meeting last week to discuss areas of concern about these much-loved apples. One of the main issues, says Dean, is that unlike old-fashioned varieties like Northern Spy, which can last up to a year with good storage, Honeycrisp apples do not store that well over winter. (And let’s be honest, Spys aren’t a great eating apple, but they’re great for pies.)
In short, “They’re not holding up in storage, and people want Honeycrisps all year,” he says. So the group discussed several things, including changing the physiology of the apple to help with longer storage times, tree stress, nutrition, spraying practices and harvesting, among others.
At Johnson Farms, they’ve put out their first spray, signaling the beginning of spraying season that will last into the fall. Dean says they’re about two weeks ahead of where they were last year.
The first spray was for San Jose Scale, an insect that attacks fruit trees like apples, peaches, pears, plums and cherries. According to MSU’s Integrated Pest Management page, “Scale infestations on the bark can be heavy and contribute to an overall decline in tree vigor, growth and productivity.”
“We basically smother the apples with oil,” says Dean, adding that it’s a light-grade mineral oil that helps control the insect infestation. It’s important to catch it before they start blooming. They’re also starting to spray cherries for the same infestation, and coming up, they’ll spray for rot, especially if we have a lot of wet weather. There’s a lot to say about spraying and integrated pest management, which I will write more about as we go along this season.
Are the Colder Temps a Problem?
Any time you have a warm spell early in the spring, like we did this year, followed by a colder spell, which we’re in right now, that could signal problems for local farmers. But Dean says he hasn’t found a frozen bud anywhere – not yet anyway – and that’s good news.
On the other hand, if every single bud develops into fruit, that affects the price. More fruit in the marketplace means lower prices. “We’ll see how it all works out,” he says.
Planting Thousands of Trees
Johnson Farms will plant upwards of 8,000 trees this year, mainly the popular Honeycrisp and other apples, but also a few varieties of cherries. Here’s how that conversation went:
Dean: “We have a few trees coming.”
Jane: “I thought you said 8,000.”
Dean: “That’s a few.”
They started planting those trees yesterday — 3300 Premiere Honeycrisp apples, with 2300 Royal Reds to follow – in the block across from his house on Kroupa Road. The workers are a well-oiled machine, with one person driving a tractor, two people doing the planting, several people shoveling in dirt, and another person bringing more trees from the tree bin. These Honeycrisp trees are from Brandt’s Fruit Trees in Yakima, Washington, just one of the suppliers for Johnson Farms trees.
Unlike the giant apple trees and peekaboo ladders of the old days, the current trend for apples is “high-density planting.” These rows of close-planted apples supported by poles help to maximize production. In the old days, you might have 100 trees to an acre, but with high-density planting, you can have 1000 trees per acre.
Also, you don’t have to haul that back-breaking picking pouch up and down ladders, like the one our dad, Walter Johnson, is wearing below. This photo of he and our mom, Mary Johnson, was taken in September 1946, shortly after they were married. Also note the large apple trees.
Dean also showed me how they prune most of the branches off the bottom of the trees right after they’re planted. While these trees may have apples on them as soon as next year, they likely will not be picked and sold, as the apples help to divert growth away from the trees, which, again, you don’t want to get too big.
The Bees Arrive
And let’s not forget one of the most important pieces of farming this time of year – the bees. Johnson Farms rents bees from Sleeping Bear Farms, and they arrived en masse on pallets at the cooling pad last week. From there, the pallets were transported to the orchards, where the bees can do their important work.
You might wonder how farmers handle all the moving parts of farming from now until the last apple is harvested in the fall. I like to call it “organized chaos,” but Dean says he doesn’t sleep much this time of year.
“I don’t sleep anymore. You don’t sleep, and you worry constantly.”
Generation after generation.
A NOTE FROM JANE: I started Old Mission Gazette in 2015 because I felt a calling to provide the Old Mission Peninsula community with local news. After decades of writing for newspapers like the New York Times and Los Angeles Times, and magazines like Family Circle and Ladies' Home Journal, I really just wanted to write about my own community where I grew up on a cherry farm and raised my own family. So of course, I started my own newspaper. Because the Gazette is mainly reader-supported, I hope you'll consider tossing a few bucks my way if I mention your event, your business, your organization or your news item, or if you simply love reading about what's happening on the Old Mission Peninsula. Check out the donation page here. Thank you so much for your support. -jb